“This has been the summer we suddenly talk about water.”
That’s columnist Shawn Micallef writing in the Toronto Star last week about the July 8 flash floods that swamped the streets of Canada’s largest city. Nearly five inches of rain fell at Toronto’s airport that day, exceeding the normal monthly total for the month of July, and almost four inches of that came down in just two hours.
A commuter train was stranded in the deluge, and hundreds of passengers needed rescuing by boat. Countless cars were abandoned to the rising waters. Mayor Rob Ford announced that the city’s power system was “hanging on by a thread.”
The Toronto floods came on the heels of disastrous inundations in Alberta, which devastated dozens of communities at the end of June, including its
provincial capital of largest city, Calgary. The waters from both rains have long ago receded, but the resulting damage has been punishingly expensive, indicating just how vulnerable Canada is to extreme weather events that overwhelm traditional infrastructure, such as drains and culverts.
The July 8 floods are proving to be the costliest natural disaster in the history of Ontario, with property damage estimated at $850 million and still climbing. Insurance companies are rethinking the way they cover water damage in the region due to skyrocketing claims. Toronto has a subsidy program to help people protect their basements against flooding, but in events like this even more advanced systems can be overwhelmed.
In Alberta, the financial toll is even more overwhelming. The cost there may total more than $5 billion, affecting provincial and municipal budgets for years to come.
All of this has brought renewed attention to the fragile state of Canada’s water infrastructure, not an area that has traditionally captured the public imagination. A March 2012 study revealed that while a majority of Canadians thought that maintaining the drinking water system is one of the top three areas that deserve government funding, 80 percent thought that immediate investment in that system was unnecessary.
Yet even back in 2007, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities released a report called “The Coming Collapse of Canada’s Municipal Infrastructure,” estimating that it would take as much as $90 billion over 10 years simply to update and maintain the nation’s water infrastructure.
As the Star’s Micallef pointed out, much of Toronto — like many modern cities — is built on paved-over streams and rivers. He points to the work of Michael Cook, whose website, The Vanishing Point, documents the various ways that Toronto and surrounding communities have tried to bury, divert, channel and contain their natural waterways.
This strategy has not proved successful, writes Cook in a recent post:
We need to go upstream and find ways to keep rainwater out of our sewer systems to begin with. We need to restore functional sequences of wet lands, groundwater infiltration and surface streams, and to do that, we need to get used to accommodating water in our neighbourhoods and our parks again.
The July 8 floods were by no means an unprecedented or unpredictable event. Just a few weeks earlier, overflow from the city’s Don River had flooded the Don Valley Parkway, prompting one local writer to ask, “Could it be that Toronto has too much asphalt and concrete and not enough green living infrastructure?”
It’s a question that North American cities from New Orleans to Seattle are asking these days. The question for Toronto, as for so many other storm-prone municipalities, is whether “the summer we suddenly talk about water” will turn into the season that we do something about it.
Watermark is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including CityLab, Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.